In what likely would be a controversial move, the Bush administration is considering moving the country’s foot-and-mouth disease research program from an isolated island location to the U.S. mainland. Critics warn against a catastrophic disease outbreak which could occur if the virus was accidentally released near livestock populations.
Plum Island , the current home of the research program, is located in the Long Island Sound approximately 100 miles northeast of New York City. The aging facility is not secure enough to handle higher level research sought by scientists.
Among sites being considered for the new facility are Manhattan , Kan., Athens, Ga.; Butner, N.C.; San Antonio; and Flora, Miss. The new site could be named later this year, and the lab would open by 2014.
Meanwhile, members of Congress are seeking access to internal government documents which detail accidents that have occurred with the highly contagious virus. An accidental release of the virus could cause widespread losses and devastate the livestock industry.
Current laws permit the government to prohibit all exports and movement of livestock if an outbreak occurs in the U.S. Herds would be quarantined and a controlled slaughter could be initiated to halt the spread of the disease.
The Department of Homeland Security says measures to contain the virus have been improved. "Containment technology has improved dramatically since foot-and-mouth disease prohibitions were put in place in 1948," said DHS spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.
Skeptics fear an accidental release of the virus and point to incidents that occurred last year in the United Kingdom when the virus escaped from a research facility there. FMD research, they say, ought to be kept far from cattle populations. The U.K. incident led to economic crisis and widespread loss of livestock.
According to a Homeland Security report, numbers of livestock in the surrounding areas of possible new U.S. research facilities range from 542,500 in Kansas to 132,900 in Georgia .
The FMD virus is so contagious that work with it has been confined to the remote island for over 50 years. The Agriculture Department operated the Plum Island facility until 2003 when it was turned over to the DHS.
Roger Breeze, former Plum Island director, suggested a facility could be safely located at the Atlanta campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for infectious diseases in Frederick , Maryland. Another possibility, Breeze said, is on Long Island , where there is no commercial livestock industry.
Current work conducted by Plum Island FMD researchers includes detection of the disease, strategies to control epidemics with vaccines and drugs, testing imported animals to detect the virus and training of professionals.